Schools: How To Make a Village

You can barely find a list of “ten tips for better government,” in which a word like “partnership” isn’t used and we’ve detected a surge in the frequency of its use.

Shayne Kavanagh

Partnership is at the center of the Smarter School Spending program sponsored by The Government Finance Officers Association, in which school districts apply to be part of the “Alliance for Excellence in School Budgeting.” As described by Shayne Kavanagh, senior manager for research at GFOA, the goal of the program is for local alliances to develop new collaborative decision-making processes in schools in hopes that they get a bigger bang for their limited buck, with well-researched curriculum decisions driving the budget rather than the budget driving the curriculum.


Not just any school district can join. Applications must be signed by both finance and academic officials. “It’s a finance and academic partnership that gets them talking together and pulling together. The focus is on making good financial decisions and good academic strategy decisions,” said Kavanagh.


The alliances are guided by a bundle of key principles including encouragement to be widely inclusive (bringing superintendents, school boards and community members into the problem-solving process) and to evaluate what they do. Local alliances are aided by a set of techniques provided by GFOA and enhanced by conversations with other district alliances.


We were attracted by the lack of dogma in the approach and the focus on local decision-making based on local needs.


Some of the success stories are described on the website — for example, how Traverse City Area Public Schools in rural northern, Michigan, increased student math scores. The school district saw that its math scores were below the state average, even though reading scores were above. Using the Smarter School Spending framework, they analyzed the root cause of the problem and found that teachers and administrators had a lot of problems with the curriculum and decided they needed a better one. “The standard way of doing that is to send out bids and get proposals and have vendors pitch to you,” said Kavanagh.


Instead, a wide variety of players in the school district decided to run their own local pilot study, trying out three different math curriculum options in three volunteer schools. The other district schools were the control group. On cost and performance one method clearly came out on top. Teachers and the school board were convinced; the new curriculum w

as put in place and math test scores rose.


A very important additional element: Teachers and administrators saw budget officers in a new light. They were part of a team looking for a best approach and not just to dictate the dollars that could be spent.


In addition to describing a number of other success stories, the Smarter School Spending website also provides details on the research-based framework and gives school districts a substantial set of GFOA resources.

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